Our view: Pensacola’s city council must reject the panhandling ban

Thursday night, the Pensacola City Council is set to vote on a controversial ordinance that would ban panhandling throughout much of the city’s downtown core.

Specifically, the ordinance would make it illegal for anyone — a panhandler, a street musician, a Salvation Army bellringer, or anyone else — to ask for a donation, either verbally or by holding up a sign, within two blocks of Palafox Street. Violators would be issued civil citations and fined.

There are many valid arguments both in favor and against the proposed law, but city council members should reject it for one simple reason:

It’s an unacceptable infringement by government on our most cherished civil liberty: freedom of speech.

We understand why many downtown businesses support the ordinance, which is sponsored by Mayor Ashton Hayward and City Council President Brian Spencer and backed by both the Downtown Improvement Board and Greater Pensacola Chamber. Anyone who’s spent any amount of time downtown has likely faced panhandlers while eating at a sidewalk table or walking down the street. Sometimes those panhandlers are aggressive and make customers and visitors feel unsafe.

Cities and businesses across the country say that panhandling is bad for tourism, bad for business, and has a negative economic impact. That kind of thing is hard to measure, so there’s little in the way of hard evidence, but it’s reasonable to expect that some visitors could be discouraged from returning after a bad experience with a panhandler.

Many have argued that giving money to panhandlers is ultimately unproductive; that panhandlers are likely to spend the money they receive on drugs or alcohol, and those giving money are better off donating to established organizations that provide services for those in need.

We’re sympathetic to those arguments, and to the small businesses that make up Pensacola’s vibrant downtown who say that panhandling is a problem. But here’s the thing: even if all of the arguments against panhandlers are true (and that’s a big if), that’s still not reason enough to start passing laws that dictate what citizens can say or write on a sign. It doesn’t matter if the pros outweigh the cons. This is America, and we don’t make those kind of laws here.

Here’s what the American Civil Liberties Union has to say about it:

“This proposed ordinance is a direct violation of citizens’ rights,” said ACLU of Florida staff attorney Jacqueline Azis. “Freedom of speech, both under the U.S. and Florida constitutions, is a fundamental right afforded to all citizens — political activists, religious leaders, and yes, even those who are homeless. The city council should not be in the business of limiting speech because it doesn’t like the message of the speaker or how the speaker looks.”

Pretty hard to argue with that. If we accept that the city council can pass a law making it a crime to write, “Hungry, please help,” on a sign, what’s to say they’ll stop there?

Believe it or not, there are ways to address this issue that don’t involve undercutting the First Amendment and exposing the city to costly lawsuits that eat through our taxpayer dollars. The city actually already has laws on the books that prohibit aggressive panhandling and soliciting people near ATMs, for example. Other cities have combated panhandling through public information campaigns to discourage people from giving.

Or, here’s a wild idea: we could try to address the root causes which lead people to panhandle in the first place. After all, it’d probably be cheaper than what we’ll end up spending on enforcement and legal fees.